“They’re treating us like criminals. Please, get us out of here.” There’s so much anger and despair behind the words of Eboh Kenneth Chinedu, the Nigerian student who flew to Croatia a month ago to participate in an international sports tournament and ended up stranded at a migrant reception center in Velika Kladusa, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, together with fellow student Abia Uchenna Alexandro.
On the phone, Eboh recalls the events of the evening when their nightmare began. “We’ve been telling the truth: it was the Croatian police who brought us here by force. They stopped us and took us to the police station. We explained to them that we were there for a sports tournament, that we were travelling with regular visas, but they wouldn’t listen to us. At one point, we were loaded into a van with other people. It was night, and they told us we were going to Bosnia, but we didn’t understand why. When we arrived in the woods, we were told to get out or they would shoot us.”
Eboh and Abia had no choice but to follow the migrants they were with. That is how they found themselves in Velika Kladusa, a town in northwestern Bosnia, in a center run by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). Their story first came to public knowledge a week ago. In an interview with the Bosnian newspaper Zurnal, the two students told their story, and as a result were immediately transferred by the Bosnian authorities to an immigration center in Istocno Sarajevo. This is a center where illegal immigrants are imprisoned while waiting to be repatriated. The question is, where to?
The Bosnian authorities are stressing that technically, the two young men entered Bosnia illegally, so—their argument goes—they must be sent back to Croatia, and from there return to Nigeria. But Eboh and Abia don’t agree with this plan at all: “We are afraid to go back to Croatia after what the police did to us,” Eboh explains. “If it’s necessary, we are asking at least for a UN representative to accompany us. All we want is to get home as soon as possible.”
Unfortunately, their situation seems far from a resolution at this point. The Croatian authorities are denying having deported the two students to Bosnia. Agreeing to their repatriation at the request of the Bosnian authorities would be tantamount to admitting the “error” committed by the Croatian police.
That “error” was not an isolated incident, but represents a common practice that has been repeatedly denounced: namely, that of rejecting migrants back to Bosnia without giving them the opportunity to exercise their right to seek asylum. A racist error, no less, because the two young men were kicked out of the country based on nothing more than the color of their skin, with the assumption that they were there illegally. A week after the media scandal that arose after their complaint was published in Zurnal, nothing has changed for Eboh and Abia. Or, rather, they seem to be in an even worse situation that before.
“We don’t know why we ended up here, they haven’t told us yet what crime we’re supposed to have committed. All we know is that we ended up in prison without any trial: we can’t get out, we can’t make or receive phone calls because they took our mobile phones away. We haven’t heard from our families in days. The police are cruel to us. There is no hot water in the bathrooms, there is no heating. They give us pills to sleep. All of this is absurd.”
Even worse, the two young men don’t even have access to a lawyer: “They gave us a list of names,” Eboh recalls, “but we had no idea what that was. Nobody speaks English. When we ask what’s going to happen to us, nobody gives us any answers. They are just repeating: ‘tomorrow, tomorrow,’ but days have gone by and we’re still here. We were only able to meet a representative of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) yesterday. Otherwise, we know nothing.”
Their dire situation is confirmed by the head of the ICRC delegation in Bosnia, Elmir Camic: “We have seen the two Nigerian students, because they fall within our mandate, but so far we have not been actively involved in the procedures for the repatriation of the young men.” In short, what seemed like a story that was going to be resolved in a short time is turning into an ordeal full of unknowns. At least for now, the political tug-of-war between Bosnia and Croatia seems to be prevailing over any considerations of what is best for Abia and Eboh.